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500,000 Iraqi Civilians Flee Mosul Fighting, Migration Group Says


More than 500,000 citizens fled in fear as extremist militants overran Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said Wednesday.

The group, whose teams have been monitoring the plight of those caught in the midst of the onslaught, said the violence had resulted in 'a high number of casualties among civilians.'

The northern city's four main hospitals are inaccessible because of fighting and some mosques have been converted for use as clinics, the IOM said.

Those fleeing the fighting, in vehicles or on foot, some bringing only what they can carry in plastic bags, are heading to the city's east or seeking sanctuary elsewhere in Nineveh province or in Iraq's Kurdish region.

The rush led to bottlenecks at checkpoints Tuesday as people tried to reach safety in nearby Erbil.

Despite its size the predominantly Sunni city has a population of about 1.6 million Mosul's collapse was swift.

After weekend clashes, hundreds of radical Islamist fighters from an al Qaeda splinter group swarmed through the west of the city overnight Monday to Tuesday.

American-trained Iraqi government forces fled in the face of the onslaught by the fighters, believed to be from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaeda splinter group also known as ISIS and ISIL. The militants now control most, if not all, of the city.

Iraq's parliamentary speaker was scathing. 'The (Iraqi) forces abandoned their weapons and the commanders fled, leaving behind weapons, armored vehicles. Their positions were easy prey for terrorists.'

On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered that all military leaders who fled be court-martialed.

The heavily armed radicals overran police stations, freed more than 1,000 prisoners from the city jail and captured the city's international airport.

The Kurdish regional prime minister whose ethnic Kurdish forces reach the eastern outskirts of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province blamed Iraq's leadership.

'Over the last two days we tried extremely hard to establish cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces in order to protect the city of Mosul. Tragically, Baghdad adopted a position which has prevented the establishment of this cooperation,' Nechirvan Barzani said in a statement on Tuesday.

Oil town under attack
Besides the assault on Mosul, dozens of suspected ISIS militants on Wednesday seized parts of Baiji, a small Iraqi town in Salaheddin province located about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, police officials in Tikrit told CNN.

The Baiji oil refinery Iraq's largest is still under control of Iraqi security forces, officials said.

The fact that ISIS forces are trying to take the town will worry the oil industry in Iraq but also suggests a wider strategic aim.

Baiji sits on the main highway north from Baghdad to Mosul a road which passes through rural areas in which ISIS has a lot of influence.

For the government to reinforce its troops in Mosul, it needs to drive them through Baiji.

If ISIS controls the town, or at least can pour firepower on the highway, it will make it much harder for the government to give that support.

The move into Salaheddin province the capital of which, Tikrit, was Saddam Hussein's hometown shows how close the major fighting is getting to Baghdad.

Discontent feeds violence
Al-Maliki called Tuesday for parliament to declare a state of emergency and for volunteers to pick up guns and bolster the army. He also asked for help from the international community.

But his underlying problem is the country's festering sectarian division.

The country's minority Sunni population, who prospered under Hussein, feel shut out by al-Maliki's Shia majority-dominated government.

It's a discontent that feeds growing sectarian tensions that find expression in multiple daily car bombings and suicide attacks.

On Saturday, there were six roadside bombs in Baghdad alone, in which 33 people were reported killed and 72 wounded.

The devastating ISIS advance, which had been building for some time, is proving an object lesson of much that is wrong in Iraq and the region with a festering civil war over the border in Syria adding fuel to the growing sectarian tensions at home.

ISIS is exploiting this to expand its influence, from cities like Falluja and parts of Ramadi which it wrested from the government in Anbar early this year, and from Syrian towns like Raqqa it controls over the border.

A U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN that ISIS had been active in Nineveh province 'for a long time and clearly sensed that Mosul was vulnerable now after engaging in sporadic attacks earlier this year.

'Strategically, the group looks at Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, and its ability to shift resources and personnel across the border has measurably strengthened its position in both theaters.'

However, the official said, despite the territorial advances it has made in Sunni-dominated Anbar and Nineveh provinces, ISIS still has 'significant weaknesses.'

'It has shown little ability to govern effectively, is generally unpopular, and has no sway outside the Sunni community in either Iraq or Syria.'

Too radical for al Qaeda
The more the Sunnis feel they are being abandoned by their Shia-dominated government, the harder any political rapprochement, and therefore peace, will be.

ISIS is exploiting this weakness. It is considered too radical even for al Qaeda and in the past months has withstood and emerged from a jihadist backlash from within the ranks of its erstwhile radical Islamist allies in Syria's civil war.

That it is capable of fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on one hand, its fellow radicals on another, and the Iraqi government on top of that where it is winning significant battles and scoring massive weapons hauls is an indication of the depth to which ISIS has established itself in the region.

According to the United Nations, last year was Iraq's most violent in five years, with more than 8,800 people killed, most of them civilians.

This year, almost half a million people have been displaced from their homes in central Anbar province.

Fighting skills
ISIS grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq. In the west of Iraq, its militants were responsible for the deaths and maiming of many U.S. troops. In 2006, their commander the bloodthirsty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. strike.

In the ensuing years, with American help, Iraqi tribal militias put the al Qaeda upstart on the defensive.

But when U.S. troops left, the extremist militants returned, found new leadership, went to Syria, grew stronger, and came back to Iraq, making military gains often off the backs of foreign fighters drawn to Syria's conflict.

They came to Syria's civil war better equipped and trained than most jihadists, with skills learned fighting in Iraq. They exploited their advantage, charting a course directed by a vision for a regional caliphate.

Mosul has not just helped fill their war chest, it has made them the single most dangerous destabilizing radical group in the region something the Iraqi government seems ill-equipped to deal with.